Review of Walls Around: The Plunder of Warsaw Jewry During World War II and its Aftermath, by Itamar Levin. 2004. Praeger Publishers. Westport, Connecticut, and London.
Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
Whose Golden Harvest? Exploitation and Plunder of the Living and Dead Conducted by Non-Jews and Jews Alike. Property Restitution
Holocaust-uniqueness proponents have argued that, whereas the genocides of non-Jews all had rational economic motives (notably the acquisition of the properties of the victims), that of Jews was completely irrational. Levin challenges this. He cites Franz Stangl, the Kommandant of Treblinka, who spoke of acquiring Jewish wealth as the goal, and with racial philosophies assuming secondary importance in the conduct of the Holocaust. (p. xi, 171). Levin presents impressive evidence of the progressive German exploitation of the 450,000 ghettoized Warsaw Jews in German-occupied Poland. So poor did the Jews become that they could not care for each other, and 100,000 of them died from starvation, exposure, and disease (between the September 1939 War and the first shipments of Jews to Treblinka)(July 1942).(p. 4). This was too slow for the Germans (p. 27), so they switched to systematic mass murder. The haul of Jewish wealth from the 870,000 Treblinka victims alone was staggering: 1,200 to 1,350 railway cars. (p. 180). (For more on the German economic motives behind the Holocaust, see the Peczkis review of Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction).
The author briefly mentions the comparable Nazi actions against Poles. He comments: "As a direct result of this policy, non-Jewish Poles were allocated food rations that barely sustained them, as most output was sent westward to Germany...the average Pole lived on a mere 600 calories per day..." (pp. 10-11).
In the first parts of this work, the author relies primarily on Warsaw Ghetto Jewish chroniclers. Oddly enough, Levin (p. 270) considers Ringelblum as being a pro-Polish historian for making some statements with which whom Levin disagrees.
Jan T. Gross, in his FEAR and GOLDEN HARVEST, would have the readers conclude that theft of Jewish property is some kind of particular Polish vice. Levin also elaborates on Poles stealing from Jews (pp. 84-90), often as the result of German enticements (e. g., p. 145), and Polish riffraff (Krolikowski's term) buying confiscated Jewish items from Ukrainian collaborators near Treblinka (p.176). However, he is objective enough to recognize that such conduct was not limited to any nationality. He comments: "Cases of blackmail, or taking advantage of the deportation for individual personal gain, serve to illustrate how corrupt their perpetrators had become--Germans, Poles, and Jews alike." (p. 148).
Levin adds: "Jews taking advantage of other people's terrible circumstances for their own personal gain is a particularly painful chapter in the history of the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. In some instances, they were simply blackmailers and cheats; in other cases, informers and collaborators." (p. 90). The author devotes several pages to this conduct. (pp. 90-99). Jewish informers, some of whom had been coerced while others who had acted freely, repeatedly told the Germans where Jewish wealth was concealed. Many corrupt Jews took bribes and ransom, and engaged in extortion. "The Thirteen", a Jewish Gestapo, headed by Abraham Gancwajch, was particularly odious in this regard. (pp. 94-99).
Pole-on-Jew grave robbery has gotten a lot of one-sided media attention owing to Jan T. Gross and his ZLOTE ZNIWA (GOLDEN HARVEST). Jews also exploited the Jewish dead. Levin cites Ringelblum, who wrote: "`Undertakers open graves, take out the jewels and gold teeth...Unspeakably base acts are happening at the cemetery. Mass graves [and] defilement of the dead by the lower orders, who throw them into the graves like dogs...they open graves at night, pull out gold teeth and steal the shrouds.'" (p. 98). Rachel Auerbach, also cited by Levin, compared Jewish looting of the dead with its poverty-driven Polish counterpart. She said: "`It turns out that a large percentage of items available today for trade come from looting dead bodies. Specialized companies, who make a living from this, strip the clothes from dead bodies lying in the street...We hear examples of brutality and indifference to death that beforehand could only be found among the village peasants--and then only because of their cruel and difficult living circumstances.'" (p. 98).
While there were post-WWII Poles who resented Jews coming back alive, other Poles welcomed them. (pp. 194-195). No one knows how many Polish Jews survived the Holocaust, because so many Jews kept their Jewishness secret. Interestingly, Levin (p. 229) cites an estimate, based on confessions to priests, that there may be about 50,000 Jews who, as children, had been raised by Poles. (p. 229).
The author provides a history of postwar Jewish property-restitution claims against Poland (especially since 1989). To begin with, how much did the Jews once own? There were 6,000 Jewish communal properties throughout Poland (p. 221), while estimates of the value of private properties in Warsaw alone are unverifiable, and range from a few billion to 40 billion. (p. 248). There are numerous other practical problems regarding this issue. Levin adds: "From an economic and legal standpoint, the principle of returning nationalized property is complicated. Under the Communist system, everything belonged to the state." (p. 225). The author does not mention the Holocaust Industry, but does ask which Jewish individuals or groups presume to speak for the Jewish dead.
The author alludes to the danger of creating new grievances during the attempt to rectify old ones: "Is it possible to evict someone today who innocently believes he or she owns a given property, in favor of the heir of someone who owned the property sixty years ago?" (p. 225). "Should representatives of the Jewish people...approach handicapped [Polish] children and demand that they vacate a formerly Jewish hospital?" (p. 224).
Levin considers statute of limitation laws as unfair (because few Jews were in position to make claims during the relevant time period), but does not answer for whom such laws should be waived (Jews only, or also non-Jews?), or to how far back they should be waived (75 years, or 750 years?). Furthermore, recounting the almost total destruction of Warsaw during WWII, how does one deal with properties that no longer exist, and which have new buildings in their place? Finally, Levin realizes that Poland could not afford to pay major property claims against her. (p. 4).